Birju Pandya: Why Service Should Start And Return To
Posted by Bela Shah on Nov 4, 2011
After last week’s Forest Call, I couldn’t wait to join this past Saturday’s call were we had a special opportunity to engage in thoughtful conversation about intention with our wonderful guest speaker Birju Pandya.
Amit sparked the circle of sharing with his Diwali reflections. In between helping his sister prepare delicious desserts and lighting fire crackers with the kids, he was reminded of the deeper meaning of this holiday, to bring our own inner light to the darkness within ourselves. Amit expressed gratitude for opportunities such as the weekly forest calls, which continue to fuel his inner light, and keep it shining fiercely.
Audrey shared how she is reminded of being more present through the changing of the seasons. This reflection reminded me of something I learned recently at our DC Wednesdays from one of our guests for the evening – Hans. Hans described to us the meaning of each season in the ancient Vedic traditions. Spring was a time for awakening, summer a time for growth, fall for harvesting, and winter for rest. Hans explained that in his own life, when he accepted the cycle of these seasons and lived with their natural flow, he was more present and things fell into place in peaceful harmony. But when he resisted any of these four states of being with the changing of the four seasons, chaos inevitably arose in his life.
Recently Nipun was invited to speak at the Gandhi-King conference in Memphis, Tennessee. After one of his workshop sessions, Nipun asked a woman who had attended about her moment of inspiration. She explained that she had a 7 year old that came home from school one day and cried that everyone in school thinks he is a terrorist (this was after 9/11). The woman explained that in the moment, she had a choice. She could either teach her son how to love or how to hate? She chose love. She explained to her son that all of the people of the Muslim faith that she knew who were good people. The woman asked Nipun, “Did you know that Steve Jobs was born to a Muslim father?” Nipun didn’t know this fact but after reading more about it later, he learned that Steve’s biological father was from Syria, moved to Wisconsin where he met Steve’s biological mother, and then later, moved to Cupertino, California and opened a restaurant. He didn’t know anything about Steve and vice versa, yet Steve had visited his biological father’s restaurant on several occasions. Nipun explained how this story reminded him of the “orbits of affinity” that exist in our universe…they didn’t know until later that they were father and son yet the universe brought them together…we are all moving in similar orbits of affinity.
Last week, Parth followed his curiosity to a park where individuals from “Occupy Oakland” had gathered under a city of tents. His intention was to collect stories and understand what incited people to participate in this movement. Looking around the sea of more than 200 tents, Parth was quite struck by how hundreds of people self-organized themselves. People that had never met each other before were volunteering to take care of one another and contribute in whatever ways they could. As he walked the grounds, Parth discovered food tents, coffee tents, supply tents, and even a children’s play tent that had a sign that read, “We don’t sit with your children but we sit with you while you sit with your children.” He asked the person at the supply tent how he knew what was needed. Did someone ask him to set up a supply tent? And the volunteer replied, “I’m not part of a committee. I just knew people would need things to survive here. I knew if I came out here, I’d figure out what they needed. Those who know more do more.” Parth thought about some of the criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street movement that have arisen in the past few weeks. What is their agenda and what are their unifying principles? And this string of questions prompted him to think about the philosophy of ServiceSpace, which allows things to organically emerge if people are given a space to share their energy in a natural way that speaks to them. Someone at the park explained to Parth, “We don’t feel like we need to define ourselves. It’s not a known phenomenon, it’s a spirit phenomenon. When you get enough people together that are inspired in some way, they will self-organize and self-govern if the principle is taking care of the person next to you.” The day of investigation and cathartic inquiry inspired Parth to begin looking into his own life, to identify neglected areas of his life where he failed to generate his own participation.
Yoo-Mi also had something really beautiful to share. “Most people can’t sing but when all of us get together in a space and sing, somehow the music becomes absolutely beautiful.” This realization came about when Yoo-Mi joined a community group of singers a few months back. The woman who originally created the singing group wanted to utilize singing as a tool to bring together poor people that were suffering from mental disabilities. Everyone was invited to join. “The important thing is singing together, it has this powerful way of connecting ourselves to each other.”
Last week, Birju spent the day with a company that is going through a difficult financial time. He explained how the company aims to benefit the environment and over half the employees are Tibetan refugees. Birju came together with his colleagues to rally the troops because there has been a lot of turnover at the top. The culture of the company is quite unique; all of the meetings begin and end with a meditation. After one such meditation, Birju learned from one of the company’s employee’s that he had been paid about $11 an hour for about 3 years. The man explained how he couldn’t really make ends meet with that kind of salary and on top of that, this year he had to cut out his health insurance. As Birju got ready to regroup with the CEO and others from senior management, the CEO announced his decision to defer all of his salary in order to provide health insurance for everyone. This action inspired the rest of the senior team to defer some of their salary for the sake of their employees. For Birju it was a day that really felt like what it means to be moved by love.
Amit continued to prompt Birju by planting a few seed questions: “Can you share more about your journey, not just with Service Space, but your inner space as well? As you have been going along this journey, how has it impacted your decisions in your personal and professional life, in your outlook, and how has it impacted those around you? For example, your office uses smile cards and has meditation Thursdays; that kind of impact requires such internal strength and presence. What are your secrets to create this type of enabling environmentJ?
Birju began by telling us about an article that he had written a while back and the emotions that accompanied it, Birju said, “I felt weird sharing it with people who had been practicing for a long period of time. But then I got into a conversation with Rahul Brown, who said something that really stuck with me. “A lot of times when we share something, the person that most needs to hear it is ourselves.” So it’s an amazing thing to be able to share from an inner space to this particular group and I look at it as a positive experience for myself.”
The following are golden snippets from Birju’s journey:
From a concrete perspective, I originally came across Service Space because of uncle and auntie (referring to Nipun’s parents aka “CF Mom and Dad”) who visited my parent’s home in 2004. I was speaking with them about philosophers and they said, “You should meet our children.” I wasn’t sure when I would ever meet them since I lived in the middle of nowhere Arizona but I started reading about Service Space while working at a company I wasn’t really aligned with so I had a lot of free time. One of my highlights was reading Nipun and Guri’s blog from their walking pilgrimage in India. I asked myself, “Who are these people?!” (Hmm…sounds familiar….Nipun and Guri’s blog has inspired many people in this world, including myself :) ...Birju decided that he had to meet these people. So in 2005 he got a chance to meet the Mehta family and the rest is history...
Birju recalled...I started out as a smile card shipper. Prior to this initial volunteer experience with Service Space, I would have thought I was doing nothing more than stuffing envelopes. But this experience was different. I realized that I wasn’t just stuffing envelopes with cards that had smiley faces on them. I started thinking about the deeper meaning and intention behind it and that was unique. Then I started getting involved with Karma Tube, which was also an internally transformative experience. I remember being on a conference call with the group when I was at a point in my life where I was really wondering about my future and where I would be going. I remember asking the group, “Please don’t let me move away from this. This is really important to me…I don’t know what I’m going to have to do in my life but I want to stay connected here and please don’t let me forget that that’s my intention.”
In 2007, Birju and another awesome posse started random acts of kindness in New York. We started giving away random trinkets but the deeper purpose was to really explore what it means to be there in the present moment for another person. I remember one story. A woman came up to our group of mostly brown people and said, “It’s so much better that you’re doing this rather than bombing buildings.” It would have been so easy to come back with outright contempt at the least and yet recognize that there is a value in cultivating even in that type of exchange and to be able to respond and say yes, we are grateful to have learned in this way and not let it really stick inside.
I think that I have three focuses right now. The first one is to try and build up strength in New York from a service capacity. The second is to build up Karma Tube, and the third is to try and open myself up in whatever way that I can. Having these goals in mind, I try and take a macro perspective of all of this. Nipun once shared with me his break down of what a volunteer journey is comprised of and it’s based on a three stage idea. The first stage is more about you. The second stage is about the platform (of Service Space in this case). And the third stage is recognizing that the platform is life itself. I feel that I was in the stage 1 process until early 2008 when I did my first 10 day meditation retreat and came over to be a Charity Focus intern. I tried to be open to the platform part of being a volunteer and of being of value until about 2 years ago. Since then I’ve been in all 3 sections but increasingly trying to be aware of that third component more and more. There is an opportunity to serve in every moment and while Service Space is a fantastic sandbox to try that out, being able to share this externally has been a beautiful gift.
At this point in Birju’s story, Amit (and many of us) were still amazed that Birju began his service journey with the simple act of stuffing envelopes with smile cards. Amit said, “It’s hard to believe that you did this for one and a half years. How did you feel about that? Some people wouldn’t see this as service. It’s such an important component but some people might have been looking for a more glamorous role to play. Yet you seemed to do it with joy and are yet another example of moving up from the mailroom to being at the top…”
“I don’t ever want to be disconnected from the mailroom…I love the mailroom…that’s where the cultivation of intention takes place and it’s easier in the mailroom because you don’t get lost in all of the nonsense.”
I also had that high visibility notion of service. That being said, that’s why I found it to be so valuable. It struck a chord with me and it was like hearing something that you feel that you’ve heard before but you forgot it and you need to spend some time to try to remember it again. It was clear to me that the act of service in shipping the smile cards was not in shipping the smile cards. It was in the intention that I brought to that moment. I realized that this wasn’t something that I had tried to focus on ever. So I really tried to do that. I also received some really good advice at that time. While I was working on practicing my awareness, I could also be cognizant of what was happening in my day to day life as a result of that and I did start to notice that there were differences. Subconsciously or not, that same good intention that went into shipping the smile cards also went into my interactions with people in my life. In school, I wasn’t as envious of people living these high visibility types of lives. It made me recognize that I should go deeper every time I got an inkling of truth of what I was trying to do. With bulk orders, I had more time to focus on sending out good wishes. It’s been a fantastic foundation piece in my continued journey because it has helped me to realize that intention is the most important thing.
Birju also shared some of his more recent lessons by telling us more storiesJ:
I try to be more and more cognizant about sticking to my values, especially where high visibility is very easy to come across and there is this subconscious desire to move towards that. I met a gentleman who I would be working with as a board member. For him, I was just a kid and he thought I was way too young for this role and therefore, he wouldn’t take me seriously. I was staying with him at his house so it became an interesting dynamic. After several hours I came across his book shelf and a book by a Sufi saint that I knew about. I asked him about it and it turns out that he is a Sufi practitioner. The idea for his company came out of his meditation with the Sufi saint who wrote the book. So all of a sudden all of the difficulties melted away and there was no way I could have planned for this. It just happened that several years ago I was really interested in learning about the work of this Saint because it really resonated with my values and somehow, that came up in this moment. So I realized again, just to focus on your values.
The concept of gratitude has been coming up deeper and deeper in so many ways for me as well. A few weeks ago, we were in New Jersey for a day long retreat and it was really touching. At the end of the day, we had a final 15 minute session in silence and I focused on loving kindness meditation. Faces start coming up of people who are responsible for me being in a mental state right now that is so different from the place I was in 2004. It’s very hard for me at this point to stop the tears from flowing. I really can’t even put it into words anymore. I’m so moved by this group, I used to say that you are my best friends but I don’t think that does it anymore…there is something else…it’s really important to me that you guys know that…I’m so very grateful on so many levels…getting these forest feeds, hearing the stories, receiving the random emails, the balance that it moves me personally towards…thank you all.
After sharing so selflessly, Birju asked if any of the thoughts that he expressed struck a chord in us and if had something to share about our own experiences.
Nipun expressed that he has used so many of Birju’s stories, especially the one about he traded his first class seat on a plane for economy. A man Nipun shared the story with became so fired up that he went home, looked everything up about Service Space, and then tried to connect Nipun with another group. It all started with Birju’s storyJ
Yoo-Mi expressed that a lot of us have stories but don’t put them out there. She was grateful to Birju. “You sharing stories allows us to use them in our everyday lives. I appreciate that you have put yourself out there and this encourages me to share more.”
Amit had one final question. "Everyone has their different approach to explaining Service Space. How do you get other people involved?”
Birju: In many ways I’ve been thrown softballs in that regard. I’m blessed to come across people that are already interested in this or into this. In my professional sphere, it worked out exactly in that way. I had a conversation with this gentleman and we decided to work together. To this person’s credit, there is that openness. As long as there is a seed, we just build from that in our small ways. Now we have so many meetings that begin with meditation. In fact, we were all at breakfast recently and one of our co-workers suggested we pay it forward for another table!
Leave it to Birju to not take any credit for the kind of space he is able to create but Yoo-Mi called him outJ. “I think people are open to it because you are open. You have opened yourself up and people see the connection you create with others and want to be a part of it. There is an openness and vulnerability about the way you project yourself and people want to connect to that.” Nipun added, “It’s a very co-creative dynamic that happens in that moment. In a space where people are not so open, this ripple doesn’t happen as much. You’re just trying to be in that space but by you just being there, you’re implicitly giving others permission at a subconscious level to be in that space with you.
We ended this beautiful call by expressing our gratitude. Yoo-Mi was thankful for Birju’s co-creative openness and what she has learned from this. Nipun found it amazing that people like Birju choose to offer themselves to Service Space when they can do so many other things. For Nipun, this is humbling and it evokes gratitude. Nipun was also grateful that we all held space for each other and acknowledged that the guest speakers are us! (well, not all of usJ.) “We show up for each other and that’s a beautiful thing because it cuts at the dominant paradigm pattern…every place is really the center in the vast infiniteness of our being…thank you for authentically sharing this space.”
Birju ended by reiterating that he really needed to hear what he just said because it’s helpful in knocking down barriers. “Amit, you’ve really helped me to expand my openness and concept in terms of what can be done because of the synergies that you bring in thinking about service in ways that I don’t think about but in ways I want to move towards. So thank you for that.”
A few hours after the call, Parth is the middle of lot of activity and he remembers the dialogue with Birju and how he has been avoiding cleaning the bathroom! So he suited up and started scrubbing. Ten tiles in, "My head starting thinking about this and that but then again I thought of Birju and the Mailroom, cultivating presence and holding intention. Eventually, I let go of my internal conflicts and time ... and scrubbed each tile, the grout around it, looked at the glass door of the shower from different angles to make sure all the soap scum got dealt with, scrubbing the floor, the sink, the toilet, and the walls, everything. It seemed to get more fun, coming from the place of holding "intention", as I thought about each of my roommate, and the benefit it would make for them having a clean bathroom."